Friday, June 14, 2024

“THE CRITIC”

THE STORY – The year is 1936. As the new steward of London’s Chronicle, David Brooke (Mark Strong) seeks to revive the financially troubled daily as the country’s most-read family paper. In the firing line is long-time theatre critic Jimmy Erksine (McKellen), whose extravagant prose and personal “proclivities” are distasteful to David. Jimmy has much to lose as an elderly gay man in a culture and legal system deeply hostile to homosexuality. Yet he cannot resist writing the flamboyantly merciless critiques that are his trademark. Actor Nina Land (Arterton) — for whom the married David secretly carries a torch — is a regular target for Jimmy’s most withering remarks. As pressure to appease his employer mounts, Jimmy concocts a plot to entrap both David and Nina — herself secretly in love with a married painter (Ben Barnes). But with the Blackshirts taking to the streets amid anti-queer police raids, Jimmy may be grossly overestimating his ability to emerge from his elaborate scheme unscathed.

THE CAST – Ian McKellen, Gemma Arterton, Mark Strong, Ben Barnes, Alfred Enoch, Romola Garai & Lesley Manville

THE TEAM – Anand Tucker (Director) & Patrick Marber (Writer)

THE RUNNING TIME – 99 Minutes


If the road to hell really is paved with good intentions, then many of those paving stones must surely be cinematic adaptations of novels that should have been adapted in full as a miniseries or not adapted at all. Many great novels can be condensed into a decent single-sitting cinematic experience, but far more are too complex, cerebral, or literary in order to work as standalone films. Anand Tucker’s “The Critic,” adapted by Patrick Marber from Anthony Quinn’s novel = is the latest in a long line of cinematic adaptations that fail their source material by trying to condense it too much and thus allowing much of what made the novel so special to get squeezed out.

In 1930s London, theatre critic Jimmy Erskine (Ian McKellen) is known as “The Beast,” a rapier wit with a poison pen ready to take down anyone he believes to be unworthy of the stage. This makes him valuable to the conservative family-run newspaper for which he writes, but when he gets arrested for engaging in homosexual activities, he gets let go. To get his job back, he concocts a scheme using the actress Nina Land (Gemma Arterton) to entrap his married former boss at the paper, David Brooke (Mark Strong), whom David is aware carries a torch for Nina. But, with the rise of skinhead culture and ever-escalating crackdowns on “perversions,” will Jimmy survive with his job and life intact once more?

For a long while, when Jimmy’s scheme is actually being put into motion, “The Critic” is pretty entertaining. Marber’s put-downs are as sharp as a knife, and McKellen is a master at wielding it. But, the film’s final act is such a shambles that you cannot help but wish that you were reading the book instead, for surely it is able to delve deeper — and more directly — into Jimmy’s psyche as his plans start to go off the rails. Instead, Tucker tries to stage the story’s denouement as a swirling mass of melodrama that gains momentum right up until the final second, but the sequence has so much ground to cover that it’s not able to fully establish Jimmy’s mindset. His actions are understandable, and McKellen gives a fantastic performance, layering all of the things he’s best at on top of each other in a way that makes them all feel fresh, but it doesn’t have much impact because it all happens so fast.

The last act’s troubles are especially disappointing, considering that, up until that point, the film is incredibly close to being good. Performances aside, the film stays in neutral for most of its running time, only kicking into overdrive when Jimmy is at his most devilish, blackmailing Nina and David and spitting out vicious put-downs. Sadly, the film is nowhere near as entertaining when focused on anything else, which is what it does for most of the film. Marber and Tucker have erred too much on the side of seriousness, building up Jimmy as a tragic character done in by his pride. When things are going well, he feels invincible, but then the real world steps in to remind him just how much the deck is stacked against the gay men of the time, which feeds his anger, trapping him in a vicious cycle of asserting his own power where he can only to inevitably be pushed back down in the dirt. It’s a powerful arc, but it’s not as effective as it could be because, whenever it focuses on this, “The Critic” begins to feel like a “Serious Issue Film.” It is nowhere near as strong in that mode as the sexy theater-world thriller at which it is best. The problem is that its desire to focus on that aspect ends up hurting its thriller half as well, lowering the sense of danger and excitement during those scenes. For all that sex is a large part of this story, there’s precious little of it actually shown in the film, robbing us of that level of enjoyment.

“The Critic” may never fully integrate its more entertaining aspects with its most serious ones, but McKellen is always the ace up its sleeve. He is the perfect performer to play Jimmy, and whenever he’s onscreen, the film is compulsively watchable because he’s so good in the role. He can make Jimmy sympathetic even when he’s at his nastiest, and he clearly relishes sinking his teeth into the script’s finely crafted insults. No matter what’s happening elsewhere, McKellen is always great, but, unfortunately, he’s not great enough to save “The Critic” from its own worst impulses. The film never quite gets to be the best version of itself, which is disheartening because it has the raw materials to do so. Almost but not quite, wouldn’t cut it for Jimmy, on the stage or in his writing, and it doesn’t cut it for this critic, either.

THE RECAP

THE GOOD - Ian McKellen is at his devilish best, sparring with a committed Gemma Arterton in this period psychological thriller.

THE BAD - Odd edits and framing abound, and the denouement moves too fast for the ending to have the desired impact.

THE OSCARS - None

THE FINAL SCORE - 4/10

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Dan Bayer
Dan Bayer
Performer since birth, tap dancer since the age of 10. Life-long book, film and theatre lover.

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<b>THE GOOD - </b>Ian McKellen is at his devilish best, sparring with a committed Gemma Arterton in this period psychological thriller.<br><br> <b>THE BAD - </b>Odd edits and framing abound, and the denouement moves too fast for the ending to have the desired impact.<br><br> <b>THE OSCARS - </b>None <br><br> <b>THE FINAL SCORE - </b>4/10<br><br>"THE CRITIC"